Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Obama's School Speech: When You Win, You Get the Platform

By way of a mass email, we got word this afternoon from the principal of our son’s elementary school that the school would present the President’s address to America’s schoolchildren on a delayed basis, and that children whose parents wanted them not to see it would be exempt. Then came another email: the speech will be shown in real time, but the right to choose out stands. This second plan sounds about right, I suppose, though I share Eduwonk's grievance: "What sorry point have we reached where the President of the United States can’t give a speech to schoolkids without it turning into a political circus?"

It’s a fine speech, an excellent use of Obama’s life story and the platform of the Presidency to encourage students to take responsibility for their own learning. I look forward to hearing him deliver it. Reading it affirms my belief that many of the conservatives who object to it aren’t really worried about their children being subjected to socialist indoctrination but about their children being subjected to evidence that the President isn’t Huey Newton.

I’m intrigued by this controversy. The charge that Obama is using his access to schools for political advantage reminds me that I once witnessed what I believe was a real instance of that phenomenon.

It was three years ago, and it involved the SAT. As every politically cognizant Georgian knows, the SAT is sore spot in our state. We annually have close to the lowest state average in the nation. Education professionals know not to take this low ranking too seriously. A disproportionately high number of our students take the SAT, making it an invalid way to compare our state’s educational performance to that of other states (the NAEP is better - there we typically rank in the high 30s). Furthermore, even if we could insure fair proportionality of test takers, the SAT – which professes to be nothing more than a predictor of first year college performance - would still be a dubious measure of the overall performance of a high school. Jay Mathews, the foremost education reporter in country and a school rankings maven, has warned repeatedly against using SAT scores to evaluate schools. By extension, SAT scores shouldn't be used to evaluate the performance of county or state school systems.

But everybody knows what a big deal the test is for college admissions, and the scores are published, as are the rankings, so even though it makes no sense to get worked up about our national SAT ranking, we get worked up about our national SAT ranking. The day the rankings come out and we're down there in the basement with South Carolina, you can expect public statements from the State Superintendent of Schools and the Governor that sound an awful lot like a football coach looking for the silver lining in the aftermath 30 point loss.

Our Governor, Sonny Perdue, is, if nothing else, an astute politician. To help combat Georgia’s annual SAT embarrassment he launched The Governor's Cup, an award to recognize those schools that achieve the highest average gains on the SAT. Presumably, many schoolwide efforts to earn this prestigious award would lead to a statewide bump in scores (it hasn’t yet panned out). In 2006, the high school where I was teaching won The Governor’s Cup.

I was skeptical, of course. I believed the Governor's Cup program reeked of politicized policymaking, and I despised anything that might further orient us toward test prep instead of real teaching. I don’t think I was alone in those thoughts, nor was I alone in my suspicion that our school’s dramatic improvement in scores was due at least in part to a demographic anomaly. The school was only three years old. When it opened, juniors and seniors who wanted to remain at the three high schools we were drawing our student body from had the liberty to do so, provided they could provide their own transportation. Consequently, our first two senior classes were smaller and less talented than the ones that would follow. We did what we could to help our students do well on the SAT, of course, but the big jump in scores probably resulted more from who our students were that year than from some dramatic improvement in education at our school. But the fact remained that we had made the biggest jump, whatever the reason, we hadn’t cheated, and we were a school that took pride in academics, so why not celebrate?

And celebrate we did. The entire 3000-kid student body gathered in the gym. The Governor made the presentation in person, having landed on our athletic field in a helicopter. It was a raucous event, an actual manifestation of something you can often hear teachers complain doesn’t exist: an academic pep rally. When Sonny handed our principal the humongous cup – still the largest object in the school’s trophy case, I’m sure – the crowd went nuts. The Governor even threw a bone to grousers like me, acknowledging in his remarks that there is much more to school than SAT scores. Whether you voted for them or not, you want your political leaders to exhibit an authoritative public presence, to appear sensible and solid. On that score Sonny Perdue did not disappoint. Having the Governor in your building is a big deal. All in all, it was a most memorable and joyful event in the life of the school.

It was also unmistakably, unquestionably a campaign event, a rah rah extravaganza worthy of Eugene Talmadge. Perdue and his people knew better than to be overtly political - he didn’t make a campaign speech, nobody passed out literature or bumper stickers – but the timing of the event (it was October, less than a month before election day) meant there was an implicit pro-Sonny rally bubbling along below the Governor's Cup celebration. He was sure enough chasing votes that day, whether that was the main reason he visited or just an ancillary benefit. Nobody complained, at least not publicly. Any of us who might have objected understood that if a politician wins the election, and if he's willing to play by the rules that go with appearing before a captive audience of students, then flying around the state handing out trophies to cheering crowds is the kind of thing he gets to do. He's the elected leader. He gets the platform. And if the elected leader is inclined to use the platform conscientiously, as certainly appears to be the case with the President's school speech, then the appropriate thing to do is shut up and listen. You might learn something.

Then again, the kind of partisans who object to Obama's school speech have never been known for their curiosity.

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